It is bound to happen and not even nostalgia will be able to stop the inevitable.
Three years ago, our landlady passed away. She didn’t have any children, nor did she leave a will. As inheritance systems have it, her property will go to her last surviving brother and the children of her deceased siblings. We have been asked to leave so that they can make arrangements for the sale of the property. This most likely means that they will tear down everything — our house, the landlady’s house that’s right beside our house, and the garden at the back — level the place, and leave a “clean”vacant lot. Unlike other countries where houses (or other structures) add to the total value of the property, they are considered an expense in Japan because people don’t like to live in old houses and tearing them down incurs huge costs. People prefer to buy vacant lots and build brand new houses. It’s happening everywhere.
In a span of a few weeks, three places in our neighborhood suffered this fate, no thanks to a declining and aging population. One moment, a house with all its idiosyncrasies stood there. The next moment, it has vanished, replaced by an immaculately empty space that belies its history. It is sad and eerie at the same time.
Today for the first time, I got to see the inside of the landlady’s house. All these years, we never stepped inside her house so we never knew that the house of our dreams was right next door. Even at the genkan (entryway), we knew right away that this was a house built with structural integrity and lifetime beauty in mind. My eyes were drawn away from the polished hardwood flooring, the finest tatami mats, and the handcrafted closet doors, and rested in the most charming and spacious alcove illuminated by gentle sunlight filtering in through the trees. Floor to ceiling glass-screen doors lining the alcove allow a generous view of the lush wooded garden at the back. If this were our house, I know this alcove will be the most well-loved space.
The landlady’s brother told us how he was born and grew up here. He remembers going fishing in the pond in the back garden as a boy and having parties in the spacious balcony on the second floor. The sad thing is that he himself would love to buy the property but couldn’t afford it. Probably the next best thing is to sell the property to us knowing we’d keep it as it is, but we would have to come up with about ¥90M. The screwed up part about the whole situation is that the other stakeholders (the landlady and her brother’s nieces and nephews) don’t have the same personal history and emotional attachment to the property as the landlady’s brother has and yet they have equal claim. We doubt that they even set foot in the property. It just breaks our hearts to know what is in store for it and wish we had the money to buy up the property and keep it as is.
While we don’t have as intimate a connection to the property as the landlady’s brother has, my husband has lived in our house for over 15 years, the longest he has stayed in one place all his life. I have lived in this house for as long as I have been in Japan — over three years. This is the house our kids first called home, the setting of many of our most precious memories . There’s the genkan that serves as Ruby’s timeout corner to which she would voluntarily go. There’s the 58 x 75 cm ofuro (bath tub) that could fit all four of us. There’s the roomy closet that Ruby calls her “car”: she would take her handbag, wave goodbye, crawl in while reciting her shopping list (“honey, sugar, rice…”). There’s the tatami room where we have once packed all my husband’s staff in (a total of 12 people) for a summer party. There’s the balcony where I grew pots and pots of basil in the summer, where Ruby insisted her potty be placed thus converting it into her personal outhouse.
All this will be gone. As if the house never existed. As if we never lived there. I’m not sure I could bear to visit again after they tear down and flatten the place. We need a good hard cry over the house because we will miss it along with the memories that are as palpable to us as the walls.
Sad as we are, we see this as an opportunity to turn toward each other, rather than to things, for comfort and security. One of my absolutely favorite feelings in the world is when all four of us come back to a warm house while it is raining or snowing outside. We would snuggle up to each other under the covers of our bed and fall into blissful sleep. At the end of the day, home is where all of us cuddle together.